Late Signing Of LB Brandon Johnson Makes Much More Sense Now

Back in early May it was reported that the Pittsburgh Steelers were kicking the tires of free agents Brandon Johnson and Matt Roth. At the time I found it pretty curious as it was sort of late in the free agent signing period.

Now it is not unusual for the Steelers to keep their rolodex updated, but with the slew of linebackers they had on the roster at the time, I found it quite interesting that position was being focused on.

By the time OTA\’s rolled around we learned that third year outside linebacker Jason Worilds was recovering from wrist surgery and that right outside linebacker James Harrison was having a problem with one of his knees. Still, no moves had been made throughout all of the OTA sessions. So at that time we at least knew why they had possibly been kicking tires.

It wasn\’t until the mandatory minicamp rolled around though that the Steelers signed Johnson, who was a castoff of the Cincinnati Bengals after playing four seasons for them. Even when Johnson was added, it seemed like a strange fit, being as Johnson had not rushed the passer a lot during his time in Cincinnati, where he played both inside and outside. Word quickly surfaced that Johnson would be asked to play outside for the Steelers and needed to bulk up by the start of training camp.

Fast forward now to Wednesday, the Steelers reporting day that culminates with the conditioning run test and release of the Active PUP list. If you are a regular listener of our podcast, you know I have theorized that either Harrison or Worilds or even both might wind up on the list. I even mentioned the two as possibilities just a few days ago. The late addition of Johnson to the roster was a tip off that this could indeed be the case.

It is unknown how long it will take for both Harrison and Worilds to be ready to start practicing. Even when they do return, I fully expect both to be eased into action, especially Harrison, whose back is also a concern. Their absence now leaves the Steelers with LaMarr Woodley, Chris Carter, Adrian Robinson, Ryan Baker and Johnson as the healthy outside linebackers currently at the start of camp. Robinson is an undrafted free agent out of Temple that caught the eye of linebackers coach Keith Butler during the offseason practices. Baker was added after minicamp concluded when undrafted free agent Brandon Lindsey was waived injured with a shoulder injury. Talk about a thin group.

The bright spot in all this is that Carter, the Steelers fifth round selection in the 2011 draft, looks to get quite an extensive amount of playing time early on in camp at the starting right outside linebacker spot and he certainly needs it. The Fresno State product did not have the luxury of an offseason program last year because of the lockout and in addition he was hampered by hamstring injury for most of his rookie season. The little playing time he receive last year, which was all of 46 snaps on both the right and left side, he looked lost, just as you would expect him to be.

Another bright spot is that the coaches will be able to take a long hard look at Robinson, who I deem a perfect candidate for the practice squad. In addition, we should know pretty quickly whether or not Johnson can indeed handle the left outside linebacker spot in the Steelers 3-4 defense. He admitted back in June following his signing that he knew very little about the position. He is, however, a solid special teams player and that indeed is a bonus should he take to his new position.

I have been given hell since early June for insinuating in three different posts that 2012 could very well be the final year for Harrison in the black and gold. That prediction was mainly based on his back history, age and amount he stands to count against the salary cap in 2013. His current knee problem, which has bothered him since the Steelers first OTA session, gives me even greater concern now. It should now be a concern for you as well.

Worilds, who the Steelers hoped would be the heir apparent to Harrison, has also had a problem staying healthy since the Steelers drafted him. Now in his third year, I am sure the Steelers envisioned him receiving more playing time in 2012 to help spell Harrison at times. While he should be able to overcome his wrist problem, he has yet to show that he can be relied on to do the job.

If you think Harrison can play in every game in 2012, I think you might need a reality check, as the writing is on the wall that he will miss a game here and there this season. If he does play in every game, I will owe both you and him a huge apology. Regardless if he does or doesn\’t, he needs to be spelled and hopefully Worilds is able to do the spelling. If not, then it needs to be Carter.

Most Steeler fans will tell you that their two top defensive concerns heading into this season are the defensive line and the cornerback position. I\’m here to tell you that in my opinion it is the right outside linebacker position that I am most concerned about. The Steelers defense relies heavily on the ability of their outside linebackers to provide pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which hopefully winds up in sacks or a hurried throws. Those same outside linebackers have to also have the ability to drop when needed against the pass and hold the edge against the run. If Woodley stays healthy I have no concerns about him, but it is the other side that I worry most about this season. We all saw what happened when Lawrence Timmons was forced to play outside last year. That was almost like losing two players, as Timmons can be a force inside, the position he is best suited for.

Sure, this whole post was a long explanation as to why Johnson was signed so late in the offseason. In my opinion it was done so late because of a fear that Harrison and Worilds would not be ready by the start of training camp, something they possibly considered as a possibility even way back in early May. Let\’s hope that the fear they had ends with training camp and that both players are near 100% health wise by the start of the season.

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